The ABC of Energy: How to Live Without Hydrocarbons?

By George H CroyPart Six of a Gaia Discovery Energy Series based on his book "The Energy Trail – Where Is It Leading".

What have hydrocarbons got to do with your life and why should you miss them when they’re gone? First, let’s define what we mean by hydrocarbons: hydrocarbons are molecules which are made of hydrogen and carbon atoms. They can be very short chain – methane for example, designated CH4 meaning one carbon and four hydrogen atoms, a very light gas. Or it can be tar-like in appearance, made up of hundreds of carbon and hydrogen atoms linked together. From this primary source of gas and oil we get a wide variety of combinations, alone and with other atoms that are extremely versatile in their uses.

Right now, you’re probably sitting in front of a computer reading this. The keyboard is made of hydrocarbons . So is the majority of the rest of your computer. What about your seat? Is it wooden? Or is it made from plastic? The cover material is almost definitely synthetic, made from hydrocarbons. Neither the plastic to make your seat, nor the synthetic material to make the cover will be available once we run out of hydrocarbons.

OK, so we can live without the computers, or with our ingenuity we’ll manufacture them from something else. Then what about your car? Do you plug it in before you go to bed at night? So you drive an electric car. Good for you: environmentally friendlier than the average. But where does the electricity come from? Go back through these columns and you’ll find that the biggest producers, by far, of electricity is hydrocarbon fuelled power stations – coal fired, oil fire, gas fired… Where is the electricity going to come from when we have no more hydrocarbons?

Lots of people will tell you that we have adequate power generation capabilities, but ask them to prove it! All the supplementary sources of electricity - nuclear, hydro and other renewables like solar, wave, wind - account for less than a third of our energy consumption over a period of a year (EIA 2008). When the hydrocarbons run out, what is going to replace them? A jetliner is fuelled by kerosene, a hydrocarbon. Once the hydrocarbons run out you can’t fly a plane on ‘D’ cell batteries!!  

And therein lies our problem. In most cases, we don’t care how things work, so long as they do work. Imagine the panic when they don’t work any longer because there is no fuel, no raw material, no replacement parts. Plastic grocery bags, plastic packaging  - plastic anything – will cease to exist. Bottles, pipes, household detergents, lubricants, camera film, thermoplastic mouldings, polyester – and that’s just what is made from ethylene. Then we have benzene, from which are made bathtubs and bowling balls, shoes soles and conveyor belts. Toluene is used to make paints, adhesives, printing ink, even pharmaceuticals. All of these and a whole lot more are made from hydrocarbons.  A more comprehensive list can be found in my book, The Energy Trail, although it is by no means all encompassing.

If we are to survive as a race, we have to start looking at alternative solutions, not just to our fuel source, but to our lifestyles, or behaviour. The economic meltdown of 2007/8 and the subsequent long haul, (not over yet) to get back up on our feet will be seen as nothing more than a primer for what’s to come. The global economy will crash, so hard, that there will be no recovery. We won’t have the materials and the fuel to make it happen anyway. This was a one shot effort and we’ve blown it. We can’t just go back to the beginning and start again. The Hydrocarbon Era is all but over. What is going to replace it? As Saudi’s  Sheik Yamani said, the Stone Age didn’t end because of a lack of stone, and neither will the Hydrocarbon Age end for a lack of oil and gas. They will always be there. Only we can’t afford the cost of extraction. A new technology will replace them. But what is that technology? 

We need to start thinking out of the box, now. When we run out of gasoline, there is no point in car manufacturing any more. How many people are employed in the car industry? Many millions I imagine, starting from the steel industry, through car building and the side industries that support them, like instrument makers, interior panels and seating makers, to car showroom salesmen, to fuel station attendants. When they become redundant they’ll have no income to buy things – no fridges, no TVs, no computers, no microwave ovens, no Game Boys – with the obvious conclusion that these factories will eventually close down. The only manufacturing industry that might have a bright future - up to a point - will be something like bicycle manufacturing, until there is no more energy to run the plants. 

And these are only the most obvious problem areas. What about the airline industry? Planes become grounded and eventually torn apart. No work for aircrew, airport baggage handlers and all the rest of the staff. It’s a domino effect. Once the economic collapse begins, it will spread worldwide, affecting all industries, all people. Farmers and fishermen, working diligently to provide food for hungry people are the beginning of one of, if not the biggest complex industry chains in the world.  How will it survive without power? Without transport?? 

One last point. I wrote the book The Energy Trail – where it is leading, not to try and frighten people, as some claim, but to make them sit up and take notice of what is happening around them and how deeply involved they are with hydrocarbons. Everything in my book is readily available on the Internet – I didn’t make it up.

Keep looking for answers.

"The Energy Trail – Where Is It Leading"  is available at Amazon & other good book stores. Produced  by World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte Ltd (

ISBN-13 978-981-281-857-7

Previous in the series:

Part One - The ABC of Energy: What is Energy

Part Two - The ABC of Energy: The Definition of Energy

Part Three - The ABC of Energy: Energy Sources

Part Four - The ABC of Energy: Applications & Consumption

Part Five - The ABC of Energy: Clean or Dirty Sources?